Skip to main content

Careers Clinic: how should I approach a PhD supervisor?

Written by: Dene Mullen
Published on: 26 Apr 2021

Shaking hands with your PhD supervisor. We provide tips from experts on how to approach and make a good impression with a potential PhD supervisor.

Source: iStock

Choosing a PhD supervisor is a key decision that can have far-reaching effects on the direction of any young researcher’s career. As such, we asked five experts for their top tips on approaching and making a good impression with a potential supervisor. Here is what they said:

“In my area, it is important to be clear about what you’re interested in researching and why. You need to show you are committed to this rather than asking the potential supervisor what they think you should research or, even worse, saying you are prepared to research any topic they think is suitable. You need to show you’re open to taking their advice on how to research this in a rigorous and scholarly manner, but you need to be clear that you have questions that you are passionate about researching.”
Paul Ashwin, professor of higher education at Lancaster University

“Demand for doctoral education will soon outstrip supply. Most doctoral applicants come from Asia and most advisers from European and North American universities; and particularly with travel constraints, most introductions and perhaps even the first year will be online. Advisers like imagination, acumen, courage, consistency and industry. Working through trusted research networks is a great way to meet people.”
Hamish Coates, director of the Higher Education Research Division at Tsinghua University

“There are simple things to keep in mind – read some of their work, ensure that your interests really do align with theirs, have a clear idea of what you want to do and stay flexible to rethinking this with the supervisor’s support. However, beyond this, it is vital to remember that a PhD is a massive commitment and should be a fantastic opportunity for you. You need a supervisor who is supportive and kind, wise and thoughtful. You need to be interviewing the potential supervisor as much as they are interviewing you. Do they make a good impression on you? Are they going to support you and encourage you throughout the PhD?”
Nicola Byrom, senior lecturer in psychology at King’s College London and founder of Student Minds

“The relationship with your supervisor will change over the years of your PhD. Initially, you need to listen to their advice and ask them what they expect from you. Take as much responsibility as they are comfortable giving you (organising your research meetings, writing regular updates on your work, leading on group meetings) and be honest when you are having problems so they can help you resolve them. Once they trust your judgement and management of the project, you will be able to build your leadership and independence – vital when you need to defend your thesis.”
Sara Shinton, head of researcher development at the University of Edinburgh and director of the UKRI Future Leaders Fellows Development Network

“In addition to displaying an understanding of the broad research area and having some good ideas about potential topics, I think displaying a sense of humour is always a good thing, and also some awareness of the inevitable tensions and pressures that are likely to emerge in any PhD-supervisor relationship. Thinking about what you have to offer your potential supervisor is also valuable – can you forge new research links, do you have valuable contacts with research users, might you bring new skills or methods to their team? A bold candidate might suggest that they know they will have to supervise their supervisor!”
Matthew Flinders, founding director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre and professor of politics at the University of Sheffield